Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2017

© Gerald Fitzpatrick

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Heaven on Hornby

The Gulf Island's most laidback destination lures artists, dreamers and those in search of a little peace

Perseverance: that’s what it takes to reach British Columbia’s Hornby Island. First there’s the ferry from Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island — and you’d better book ahead on weekends. Then it’s a one-hour drive north to Buckley Bay to catch the ferry to Denman Island, followed by a dash across Denman to connect with the ferry to Hornby — if you’re lucky. The ferries get progressively smaller so sometimes it’s a bit of a gamble whether you'll catch the one you want. But when you do reach Hornby, it’s all worthwhile.

There’s really nothing to do there, except enjoy some of the best beaches on the West Coast, hike the top of stunning ocean cliffs, explore the sheltered coastline and deserted beaches by sea kayak, visit artists in their studios, or mountain bike to your heart’s content.

My wife and I had come for a one-week family get-together with our son and his family, and we all quickly fell into the leisurely island routine. Much of the slow pace comes from the 1000 or so year-round residents happily living an “alternative” lifestyle. Some are the families of American draft dodgers who came to the island during the Vietnam War and simply stayed. Others are artists and craftspeople who have found inspiration in Hornby’s peaceful environment.

Losing paradise?

In summer, the population almost quadruples. Fortunately, over a third of Hornby is crown land or public parks and the island has not yet experienced the type of development pressure felt on other Gulf islands. Nonetheless, escalating land values make it difficult for younger islanders to afford their own place.

One morning, I talked about this with Jan Bevan who came to the island 40 years ago. “Many houses built by people from off-island are rented to locals for nine months of the year for about $700 a month," she said. "But those same houses can rent to summer visitors for up to $2000 a week, so the locals have to move out. Some of them have a really hard time finding a place to live.”

Bevan explained that a community land trust is being established to take the cost of land out of the equation so that islanders of more modest means can build their own homes. Without such solutions many young people who want stay hang on by their fingernails in the off-season. The Co-op provides a few jobs, as does the ferry and the school, but summer is the time for making enough income to live on for the rest of the year.

That evening we went to the Cardboard House Bakery for pizza. The story goes that during the unusually bitter winter of 1968, the occupant, one "Frenchie" Leroux, began tearing off siding and shingles from the house to use as fuel. He replaced the wood with flattened cardboard boxes soaked in oil. When the bakery opened in 1982 the name was a natural, even though the cardboard had been covered up. Today picnic tables scattered through the adjacent orchard make a great spot to enjoy pizza on a warm summer evening as kids play on the grass.

Call your bluff

The next morning we set out for Helliwell Provincial Park at the eastern tip of the island. At an intersection along the way, we noticed a small table set with sunflowers — and a box in which to put your four dollars if you wanted to buy a bunch. Try that in the big city.

Once we started along the trail to Helliwell Bluffs, we were dwarfed by towering old-growth Douglas firs with huge ferns at their base. We soon emerged at the top of spectacular coastal bluffs. In springtime, this area is ablaze with wildflowers: seablush, shooting stars and delphinium. But in summer, these had given way to tall yellow grass.

We looked down on sea kayakers exploring the coastline and kept our eyes open for bald eagles. We passed red-barked arbutus trees — exotic for Canada. But the kids were more interested in the sandstone beach where we stopped to rest, spending an hour picking among the tiny stones of every hue looking for the most perfect ones. Almost every West Coast beach has piles of huge weathered logs washed up during storms and Tribune Beach was no exception. Sometimes clambering amongst them to reach the water's edge was a bit of a challenge, but it also meant there was no shortage of firewood for a wiener roast — something we had promised the kids.

We weren’t sure if beach fires were permitted, but once we saw other flickering flames that evening, we began gathering wood. The fire died to glowing embers and there was lots of advice as the kids tried to toast the perfect marshmallow.

Craft and Care

Every Wednesday in summer, between 11AM and 2PM, a farmer’s market is set amongst the trees near the island’s community centre. While local produce is on sale, it’s actually more of a craft market with artists, photographers, weavers, quilters, woodworkers, potters, jewellers — even an artisan making hand-crafted fountain pens.

I stopped at a display raising support for a new community health centre. The new centre will have emergency facilities and two examination rooms linked to a home support building. Two registered nurses would be on staff and a space for healers.

Hornby presently has two doctors who rotate bi-weekly and are on call 24 hours a day. One recently retired and the new replacement is settling into island life.

As I turned to leave, I was told: “Don’t forget to visit our re-cycling depot.” She must have been the sixth person to say the same thing and I was becoming increasingly curious why a re-cycling depot was high on the must-see list of Hornby’s attractions.

The cycle of things

The next morning we gathered our bottles and cans and set off for the depot and soon realized why it was so special: islanders throw very little away. As residents must pay to dump garbage, they create a third less of the stuff than anywhere else in British Columbia — and they have been re-cycling for 20 years. There’s even a free store where people drop off items they no longer need — clothes, furniture, appliances, books, tools, and so on — that others can take for nothing. We picked up a couple of extra beach chairs and dropped off again as we left the island.

The pièce de résistance of the recycling depot is the new toilet. It produces no waste: liquids evaporate, solid waste is processed into soil by worms and rainwater does the rest. What’s more, most of the material for the toilet came from the recycling centre: a hot water tank, crushed tin cans and stacked cardboard for the walls, broken tiles for the floor and drift logs to support the roof.

Even Hornby’s cemetery is laid-back. One memorial to a long time resident is her blue Glider bicycle with vines twining around its saddle. Another is a rusting iron cross that says simply: “Home Grown.”

The days passed all too quickly. We walked to Ford’s Cove for fish and chips at Red’s, relaxed on the beach at Whaling Station Bay, had a birthday celebration dinner at Seabreeze Lodge and returned again to Helliwell Park.

Each of the Gulf Islands has its own character and Hornby is one of the most fascinating. Maybe it’s because all those ferries keep it from getting too crowded.

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